Fifth Knock: A Story of the ’84 Sikh Massacre

It was the 17th of December 2018. While most of India moved on with its usual chaotic routine, for some, today was different. Balwinder Singh extended his break for lunch by an hour and switched on the television in his shop in the busy lanes of Delhi. Instead of her usual afternoon nap, Manjeet Kaur stayed glued to her television, watching the news in her house in Amritsar. Tara, in between classes, opened the news app on her phone instead of Instagram. At that one moment, the three strangers had a smile on their faces—justice had finally arrived.

***

A shiver ran down her spine, as Harmeet peeked out the corner of her window. She stared at the lifeless street for a minute, trying to find some calm—she couldn’t. The silence did mean that she and Manu would live for the next hour or so, but it also reminded her of the horrors she was surrounded by. As she turned, her eyes locked with her thirteen-year-old.

***

The Khalistani Militant movement in Punjab began with the 1972 Anandpur Sahib Resolution that aimed at giving more autonomy to the State of Punjab. It was not passed because the State’s ruling partythe Congress, accused it of being secessionist. Following this rejection, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant religious leader rose up the Sikh political ranks to demand an autonomous state—Khalistan, that would be a homeland for Sikhs. Bhindranwale started the Sikh militancy in Punjab, and under his leadership, many young men were initiated into the Khalsa movement. Bhindranwale symbolised the extremist movement in Punjab in the 1980s. Violent mobs would often attack government officials, Hindu groups and other civilians.

***

Manu didn’t really understand the gravity of what had happened. His curious, brave eyes had a lot of questions for his mother.

“Maa, what are we supposed to do? Is baba coming to pick us?”

“He won’t be here for a long time,” Harmeet replied, looking tremendously disoriented. Her eyes moved here and there as if they were looking for something. They finally settled on a cabinet in the corner of the kitchen.

“What are you doing maa—”

“Listen to me very closely, if someone knocks on the door, you go inside this cabinet, and you don’t move, understand?”

“Why would I do that?”

“You will do what I ask you to do!” Harmeet shouted as she sat next to the telephone.

***

Many Sikhs condemned the militants’ actions. By then, the situation in Punjab had worsened to the extent that it had become an anarchist state. Militant youth always carried firearms, and violent incidents killed a total of 410 including Sikhs who opposed the Sikh militancy, leaving thousands grievously injured in the violence. Bhindranwale, along with his militant cadre had occupied and fortified a Sikh shrine—Akal Takht, to escape arrest in 1983 following which President’s rule was declared in the state.

***

Manu stepped back, hesitantly. He had never seen his mother so jittery. For a moment, he let concern take over his turbulence.

“Maa, it’s gonna be fine. The door’s strong enough. No one can just break in.”

Harmeet wasn’t looking at Manu anymore, her eyes were stuck on the telephone, as she fidgeted on the stool.

“Is baba going to ca” Manu was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone.

***

Operation Blue Star was launched on June 1st 1984 by the military of India in order to remove Bhindranwale and his militants from the Golden Temple complex. On 6th June 1984, Bhindranwale was killed in the operation. Eighty-three army men were martyred, and 250 were injured. This military movement was received with outrage from the Sikh community as it was conducted in the temple premises. The support for the Khalistani movement increased. On 31st October 1984, PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh as an act of vengeance. Public outcry over Gandhi’s assassination, fuelled by political power lead to the Sikh massacre of ’84.

***

Harmeet leapt at the receiver.

“Hello?! Hell—”

“Hello, Harmeet? Thank God. I’ve been trying to get a call across for about an hour now.”

Hearing her husband’s voice almost made Harmeet break down. She was scared for her life. She wanted to scream and cry as loud as she could, but then her son was right in front of her. She tried her best to suppress her emotions, but tears rolled down her eyes.

“We… we will be safe,” she blurted out.

“Harmeet, listen to me carefully. I’m sending someone to get you out of there. Remember, the officer we met at the party last month? His subordinate has been posted there. He is coming for you. He’s going to knock exactly five times on the door. He will be there soon, just hold on until then, okay? I love you.”

Silence ensued for a second. Harmeet gathered herself, and in a faint voice she said, “Yes.”

***

The genocide of the Sikh community began the day after the Prime Minister’s assassination. Perpetrators used clubs, knives, guns, kerosene and petrol to inflict harm. They entered Sikh neighbourhoods killing men and women indiscriminately, burning down their homes and shops. Armed mobs would stop buses and trains, identify the Sikh men through their turbans and women through their clothing, lynched them or hacked them to death. Some were even burnt alive. Sikh women were gang-raped. 3000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi, and an estimated 8000-17,000 Sikhs were killed across forty cities in India. Assailants were reportedly paid huge amounts of money and bribed with liquor in order to hunt down members of the Sikh community, mark their houses and shops, and murder them. The Delhi Police and the state machinery turned a blind eye.

***

Every second of the next hour felt like a lifetime. In the deep darkness, neither Harmeet nor Manu uttered a word. The ticks of time were the only sounds left in the world.

“Tick-tock.”

Every second of silence between these ticks, Harmeet wondered if she would get to hear the five knocks her life depended on.

“Tick-tock.”

“Not this time.”

“Tick-tock.”

“Not this time either.”

And then it finally came—a knock and four more. Time paused. For a moment, hope arrived. But then, the knocks did not stop. That’s when Harmeet realised that they were not knocks at all; they were bangs.

***

It is believed that the massacre was allegedly led and perpetrated by activists and members of the Indian National Congress. Following this, many Sikh youth groups were formed with the primary goal of avenging their fallen brethren by murdering those responsible. Many local leaders who were accused of leading the riots were killed by such youth groups.

***

Her whole world tumbled as she became conscious of the situation. Instinctively, her first thought was about Manu’s safety. As the bangs became blows, she persistently gestured him to hide. She, herself, settled down beside a corner behind the side table, and—she prayed. Even though it was the people of her God they were after, all she could do at that moment was remember Him.

Inside the cabinet, Manu tried making sense out of the situation. Peeking through an edge, he saw a bunch of men break in.

Like vicious animals in grasslands, the men scouted the house for signs of life. For a minute, everyone went out of Manu’s scope. Just when he thought they had given up, he saw a pair of feet approaching. Fear kicked in for the first time when the stranger’s legs blocked the few streaks of light Manu was left with.

***

Ten commissions were formed to investigate the riots. The most recent was the Nanavati Commission which was headed by retired Justice G.T Nanavati. Formed in 2000, the commission reported that recorded accounts from victims and witnesses “indicate that local Congress leaders and workers had either incited or helped the mobs in attacking the Sikhs”. It also demanded that Sajjan Kumar, a Congress leader, had a much deeper involvement in the organisation of the massacre than previously thought. The Commission also reported that the Delhi Police “remained passive and did not provide protection to the people” throughout the rioting.

***

The clunk of metal echoed around the house as the goon dropped his sword. He crouched to pick it up and stopped for a second, he then rose with his blade pointing at the cabinet in front of him and went on to tap its doors. Inside, Manu shivered. With each tap, he would curl up tighter and tighter and then it finally came—the fifth tap.

Suddenly, all he could hear was panic. He opened his eyes and realised that the cabinet was still closed. Once again, he peeked outside.

He saw his mother; out in the open; surrounded by monsters and blades.

In an instant, Manu overcame his timidity. He jumped out of the cabinet, headbutting one of the men down to the ground, biting another’s wrist. In the chaos, a sword swiftly approached Manu and grabbed him by the shoulder.

Before the goon could move his blade, Harmeet who was free by now whacked him with the telephone receiver. Without any second thoughts, both of them ran towards the door with their lives on the line.

Harmeet saw Manu in front of her, almost outside; she could now see the rays of light that found their way in, stumbling through the edges of the door. They were going to make it. Her reckless attempt at keeping her son safe had somehow worked out. Hope had come back to her.

Right then, something grabbed her feet.

Manu turned back and saw his mother lying on the floor. Words stuck in his throat suffocated him for he had never felt such terror before.

“Let them go; it’s just a lady and her son,” said a voice from the darkness.

“Manu! Run! Run and don’t turn back.” He couldn’t process a word.

“They took our mother—the nation’s mother. We spare no one,” heard Manu, as he saw a sword pass through his mother’s chest.

“Manu. Run,” she blurted out faintly.

***

A total of 442 people had been convicted for inciting and spreading violence in Delhi. Forty-nine were sentenced to life imprisonment, and six policemen of the Delhi Police were sanctioned for negligence. While numerous FIRs were lodged, many were acquitted by the courts due to a “lack of evidence”. Protests ensued which eventually led to the formation of a Special Investigation Team on 12th February 2015 that reopened the case. The first conviction that came from the findings of the SIT was of Naresh Sehrawat and Yashpal Singh on 15th November 2018.

***

The wind against him carried away his tears as he screamed in agony. Manu ran and ran with nowhere to go. He was surrounded by death, smoke, and blood, but he couldn’t perceive any of it. Every time he blinked, it all came back to him; his mother’s face; her voice.

Eventually, he ran out of tears. He settled down in a corner near a broken cart. He saw splatters of red on the walls which made him keep his eyes shut. He sat there, motionless as time went on and on.

Out of nowhere, a static broke in amidst the silence of the night.

“My brothers,” said someone through a loudspeaker.

Manu peeked over the cart to see a face he would never forget. Over the crackling of the flames, he heard the man burn his humanity; he heard him spew hate beyond his comprehension. Manu stared at him and the crowd he addressed.

He wondered what had he or his mother ever done to deserve this.

***

On the 17th of December 2018, senior Congress leader Sajjan Kumar was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the rest of his natural life by the Delhi Court. This came as the first high-profile conviction for the Sikh genocide. Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel called for a strengthening of the justice system to ensure that the perpetrators of mass crimes, who usually enjoy political patronage and have managed to avoid prosecution and punishment, must be made answerable.

***

“Harman, can you bring the newspaper to me?”

It had almost become a tradition for Harman to bring the newspaper to his dad every morning. As Harman waited for breakfast, his dad would sip tea and read him jokes from the comic section.

That day, he did not hear a single joke though.

That day his dad saw a face in the newspaper. A familiar face that reminded him of something.

All he did was sigh and lean back.

***

After a long wait of 34 years, the Sikhs who were the victims of hate crime that led to the loss of their lives and loved ones only got a fraction of the justice they deserved. As India moves ahead to forge new futures, our past is tainted with bloodshed, violence and hatred where one friend turned against the other in a matter of hours. An incident like this poses questions to us as a polity, society and race. Questions about the efficiency of our judiciary and police—supposedly oath-bound to protect the innocent. Whether the unity that our country prides itself with is just a farce that can be abandoned in minutes. If we as humankind, are innately not good and kind like we make ourselves to be.

Written by Chintan Gandhi and Siri Rajanahally for MTTN

Artwork by Haripriya Bhamidipati and Shreya Bangar

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